When Robbin Chapman arrived at MIT as a graduate student, she felt starstruck by the well-known computer scientists in her department. But during the next 16 years on campus, the Institute became not only her school but her workplace, her community, and her family.
“The things I like to talk about, the way I like to think, the excitement I get about whatever I’m working on, all of that—everybody else is doing that too,” she says of the MIT community.
As a master’s candidate in the artificial-intelligence lab, Chapman developed algorithms to interpret sign language. She also volunteered at the Computer Clubhouse, the Media Lab’s after-school technology center where students, ranging from 10 to 18 years old, worked on design and engineering projects. As a PhD student with MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group, she built a computer program that helped those students explain how they think through and design projects. “I’ve always been very interested in how humans learn,” she says.
As a resident of New House, which is composed of four cultural houses, Chapman developed programs to encourage cross-cultural communication. She then began tackling diversity and inclusion at MIT as a whole. While working for the School of Architecture and Planning, she set up a monthly diversity roundtable and helped increase enrollment of graduate students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. With the MIT provost’s office, she helped organize a career workshop for minority faculty.
Now, as the associate provost and academic director of diversity and inclusion at Wellesley College, Chapman is pursuing similar goals. Under her guidance, Wellesley recently partnered with the Posse Foundation, which identifies and supports talented high schoolers who might be overlooked in college admissions, to bring a diverse group of students from the Houston area into the Class of 2021. Under a new evaluation process, faculty articulate how they will include diverse reading materials and use culturally responsible teaching methods. In recognition of her contributions, MIT created the Dr. Robbin Chapman Excellence through Adversity Award for Institute seniors.
Education needs to be more than job preparation, says Chapman, who was recently honored as a distinguished lecturer by Sigma Xi, the science and engineering honor society. “You can’t just come and take your academics and graduate. You have to know how to be in the world and how to be constructive.”